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Mon 10 August 2020
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New Zealand and Germany have been commended for their approaches to tackling the Coronavirus pandemic – does the fact that both are led by females hold the key to their success?

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There are many lessons to be learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic and one of them might be how the world is in desperate need of a greater number of women at the highest level of politics.

In the global fight against the Coronavirus, New Zealand and Germany are notable exceptions, with the former having almost completely “squashed” the virus after recording only one death, and the latter experiencing nowhere near the level of suffering that’s occurring in France, Italy, Spain, Russia, the Netherlands and the UK.

New Zealand and Germany are also notable for the fact that both have female leaders – Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Chancellor Angela Merkel, an all too rare reality in the sphere of international politics.

Ardern’s handling of the crisis has been described as a “masterclass” in political leadership, with Professor Michael Baker – one of the world’s leading epidemiologists – describing New Zealand as a “huge standout as the only Western country that’s got an elimination goal” for the virus, while Merkel has been lauded for pulling out the “bazooka” against the threat.

Certainly, there are an array of complex layers as to why some countries are outperforming others in combating the virus, but isn’t it worth exploring whether or not female leadership – or a lack thereof – is a factor in a nation’s ability to tackle an existential crisis?

Are New Zealand and Germany outperforming their peers because women leaders are less political, more decisive, more deferential to qualified expertise or cooler in a crisis?

The clues to this riddle might lie in a study published by the Harvard Business Review in 2019, which found that women outscored men on 17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones. 

“Women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty,” it found. “In fact, they were thought to be more effective in 84% of the competencies that we most frequently measure.”

Yet, women account for fewer than 7% of the world’s leaders, 24% of politicians and fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 Chief Executive Officers. It is not inconceivable that this yawning gender gap plays a contributing role in fuelling the world’s wicked problems, including poverty, wealth disparity, climate change, famine and war.

It is also interesting that, when it comes to rating their own performance, women underestimate their own ability, but men overestimate theirs. In other words, men think that they are far more competent than they actually are, which makes men less likely to seek the counsel of subject matter experts, welcome dissenting views or be open to new information that doesn’t support their existing biases and prejudices.

Nobody encompasses the very notion of unqualified over-confidence – toxic masculinity – more than US President Donald Trump, who thinks he knows more about the military than the generals; more about economics than economists; more about science than scientists; and more about infectious disease than epidemiologists. This might explain why the US has the highest rate of COVID-19 infections in the world and is 39th globally in testing per one million of the population.

The UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who was recently admitted to intensive care with COVID-19, is another male who suffers from an over-inflated self perception of his competence and routinely shuns expertise in favour of buffoonish falsehoods. His management of the pandemic has been disastrous, giving the public often contradictory and confusing messages after initially downplaying the spread and affects of the Coronavirus.

According to American professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, “effective leader talk” requires “direction-giving”, “meaning-making” and “empathetic language” – capabilities that become existentially critical in a time of national distress and crisis, all of which both Johnson and Trump are lacking.

“Ardern’s response to COVID-19 uses all three approaches,” writes Suze Wilson, a senior lecturer at Massey University, in The Conversation. “In directing New Zealanders to ‘stay home to save lives’, she simultaneously offers meaning and purpose to what we are being asked to do. In freely acknowledging the challenges we face in staying home – from disrupted family and work lives, to people unable to attend loved ones’ funerals – she shows empathy about what is being asked of us.”

Wilson observes how the New Zealand Prime Minister’s press conference on 23 March was a “clear example of Ardern’s skillful approach, comprising a carefully crafted speech, followed by extensive time for media questions” – a stark contrast to the message Johnson gave to Britons in a pre-recorded address on 23 March, in which he offered “no chance for questions from the media, while framing the situation as an ‘instruction’ from the Government, coupled with a strong emphasis on enforcement measures.”

Trump’s daily press briefings on COVID-19 have become a one-to-two hour campaign infomercial. When he’s not contradicting himself with something he told the same reporter three minutes earlier, he’s peddling unproven so-called “miracle” drugs, pushing contradictory messages, and belittling healthcare experts, state governors and journalists who merely pass on questions regarding the public’s concerns.

I’m not pretending that a world governed only by women could have prevented the COVID-19 catastrophe, but what I do know is this: the planet we occupy would be a far safer and better place with fewer over-confident and over-achieving males, and more quietly confident and supremely competent females in high office.


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